The director acknowledged her movie doesn’t have the most commercial premise. “You say, ‘black’ — ‘Oh no,'” she said recounting a (hypothetical?) meeting with financiers. “You say, ‘lesbian’ — ‘Oh no.’ You say, ‘coming of age,’ they’re like, ‘Next meeting.'”
– excerpt from The Los Angeles Times
There’s this little movie that’s made a huge impact on my life. It’s called Pariah.
Haven’t heard of it? I’m not too surprised. I mean, it’s only an Official Selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival (1 of 16, from over 1,000 submissions). It’s been certified Fresh (95%) by Rotten Tomatoes. And it’s been hailed by most major critics as an amazing (feature film) debut by director and screenwriter Dee Rees.
Me? I hadn’t just heard of it. I was yearning for it. I could hardly believe that this black lesbian was telling a black lesbian story and that it was being received. Well received at that. Sure it was an independent and sure it was a limited release. But dammit, we’d finally made it. This was our Queer as Folk, our Noah’s Arc, our L Word. So many stories had been told around ours, but not one that was solely ours. It was about damn time.
Like I said, Pariah has had a limited, gradual roll-out release. So 5 anxious weeks passed between when my friends in DC began raving about it and when I finally got to enjoy it for myself. It was worth the wait.
Worth it to hear the voice of a black lesbian screenwriter through her characters. Worth it to hear a coming out story from the perspective of a black lesbian, with all of the gender, race, class and religious peculiarities. Peculiarities that individually are not unique to black lesbians, but are unique in their configuration with one another. Worth it to hear dialogue that was honest and familiar.
Worth it to look at that screen and feel … visible.
Funny, then, that since that Friday night, I’ve felt even more invisible than ever in this city.
It began on Facebook. I “Facebook know” my fair share of gay people in this town. At least 50, but probably closer to 100. None, save 1, made any posts about Pariah. In an age where I know the wishes, whereabouts and whatfors of 100s of people all day, every day, I could hardly believe that none had an interest in seeing this movie.
In the theater, the reality Facebook warned me of proved to be true. On a Friday night (when it wasn’t snowing) there were about a dozen of us. My wife and I. My straight cousin. My gay brother. Six black lesbians, about my age, whom I’d seen out and about a few times before. And a white male/female couple. That was it.
I tried to brush it off. A glowing review or 2 on Facebook, and folks would be clamoring for more info and filling the theater. The gay information train was just slow to pick up on the fact that it had made it to our corner of the world. By next week, all the usual suspects would be running stories and reviews and all would be right with the world.
The reality would not be so easily brushed away. People weren’t seeing Pariah and no one in gay Columbus was telling them to.
When I began considering the myriad reasons why LGBTQ Columbus wasn’t seeing Pariah, I found myself growing bitter and disheartened. I was swelling up with indignation. Where was the review in Outlook? “Everything is political” except the black dyke and her film’s success at Sundance? How about Stonewall? No, the film did not make it to the Gateway and could not be screened in conjunction with OutTakes (for reasons wholly unknown to me), but does that really prevent a mention in the newsletter? Equality Ohio — Facebook posts are made several times per day about gay goings on in Ohio as well as those around the country. Certainly this, as the only screening in the state, warranted at least a status update. And New Leaf, “a social network for Columbus’ LGBT people of color” was deafeningly silent regarding the films arrival in our town.
Update 4/1/2012: Before making this assertion about New Leaf, I contacted the administrator, though, it turns out, not in the most efficient manner. Thus, our conversation about the film and how New Leaf could aid in getting the word out, was delayed until after the original publication. Since then, we have had great dialogue on the subject, and this post is now cross-posted to that site. New Leaf is also promoting the return of Pariah to Columbus, as noted here.
Where is the recognition?! An historical film has been made and it is here for our consumption. How dare you ignore such a powerful moment, a moment brought about by the vision and hard work of one of your own?
Wait, you do realize that this Black lesbian, the filmmaker and her character, is one of your own, right?
Beyond the skin color, there is a girl who doesn’t fit into the gender norms her parents envision for her. Beyond the gender, there’s a Black child whose sexuality smacks her father’s manhood and mother’s piety in the face like a ton of bricks. Beyond her gayness, there is a young woman finding herself, clinging to those who love her, learning, the hard way, to discern the ones who do not. These are universal stories which transcend gender, race and sexuality. These are human stories.
I bet you’re wondering why it’s so important then, that people see these universal stories in the context of this film. We all remember the general teen angst of “My So Called Life”. “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word” gave us the gay and lesbian perspectives, respectively, years ago. Gritty, coming of age black teenagers were all the rage in the 90s (see Boyz N the Hood). Mix those together and voila! no movie needed.
If you’re nodding your head in agreement right now, just stop reading. No really. Stop.
Still here? Let me put it like this: Remember making kaleidoscopes in school? Fill a used paper towel roll with pretty beads and marbles, crate a prism out of something glass like, tape one end shut, and put something clear across the other. When you turn the tube, different shapes appear in different color combos. What’s inside the tube doesn’t change, but it’s manifestation, and resulting impression upon you, does change with every twist.
Pariah is a twist you haven’t seen yet and that impression is what you are missing. The imprint of another story, one that is just different enough to spark new emotions and inspire new understanding of the world you live in, is what you sacrifice by not seeing it.
I won’t apologize for believing that there is a responsibility that the very visible in the LGBTQ community have to those who are less or not at all visible. Visibility is the starting point for true inclusion. Being visible leads to recognition. Recognition leads to interaction. Interaction leads to dialogue. Dialogue leads to respect. Respect leads to a seat at the table. We can hardly expect the world at large to “see”, and thus include, us if our own peers will not. If any subset of “we” is denied a seat at the table, we are all at risk of being denied. Visibility of a few does not and never will translate into visibility for all. In fact, it is upon the backs of the invisible that the enemies of freedom will stand to reach up and tear down those who have reached their seats.
“No one is free, until everyone is free.” — Dr. M.L. King
Pariah, rated R, 1hr 30min, is playing at AMC Lennox. According to theater staff, the length of the engagement is uncertain.
For another take on the film Pariah and more discussion about Black lesbian cinema, see this wonderful article in the Washington Blade.